Many of the theological debates that we see in Speaker’s Corner or on the internet revolve around issues that theologians discussed centuries ago. One such issue is how God could allow acts of brutality in the Old Testament that contradict not only our own contemporary ethics, but that of the Gospels and the Quran.
In his still highly accessible text, Confessions, St. Augustine deals with this ‘contradiction’ by distinguishing between absolute and relative ethics. He says that, ‘when untrained minds’ judge Abraham, Isaac etc. ‘by man’s day’ (Corinthians 4: 3), they are making the mistake of assessing ‘the customs of the entire race by the the criterion of their own moral code’:
This is the style of those who are irate when they hear that something was allowed to the just in that age which is not granted to the just now, and that God gave one command to the former and another to the latter for reasons of a change in historical circumstances, though both ancient and modern people are bound to submit to the same justice
What we must always keep in mind is that the Old Testament is addressed to (and I mean this endearingly) savages. But relative to their neighbours, the prophets were always advancing a more progressive agenda. It is our task to distinguish between the specifics of God’s law (which is based on context) and the universals (which applies to all people at all times).
Does this mean that justice is ‘liable to variation and change’? Augustine says ‘no’:
The times which it rules over are not identical, for the simple reason that they are times. But the grasp of human beings, ‘whose life on earth is short’ (Wisdom 15: 9), is not competent to harmonize cause and effect valid in earlier ages and among other nations of which they have no experience, in relation to the times and peoples of whom they have direct knowledge
The example that Augustine gives is the customs governing one house. You wouldn’t do what is usually done in a kitchen in a bathroom (and vice versa), nor would all the members of the family be permitted to behave in the exact same way (e.g. you wouldn’t let a toddler chop vegetables): ‘though it is one house and one family, the same liberties are not given to all members to do what they please anywhere they like’.
Meanwhile, Augustine asks ‘can it be wrong at any time or place to love God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and to love your neighbour as yourself’? Of course not. These, therefore, are universal laws. In the same way, as René Guénon says, religious forms ‘differ from one civilization to another since they must adapt to different conditions’, God’s law is universal but filtered through a form ‘that suits a particular mentality and a given era’.